F-35: How the Trillion-Dollar Program Got Here and Where It’s Going

By Nick Zazulia | September 4, 2018
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A squadron of F-35As flying over Hill Air Force Base in Utah. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Seven years ago, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program—the fifth-generation, multi-role stealth fighter—was close to being canceled. Now its creators are focused on changes for the next generation and dreaming up future technology that might be added to it down the line

In 2011, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates put the bloated, over-budget and behind-schedule program on probation with two years to shape up before the U.S. government would cut its losses, and it could have gone either way, according to the program manager for the F-35’s drag chute system, Arthur Sheridan.

The Lockheed Martin fighter's selling point is information. It’s supposed to give its team the upper hand by always having more information than the enemy thanks to its advanced sensor suite, ability to share information, low profile and ability to adapt to almost any situation with its three variants: the standard F-35A with conventional takeoff and landing capabilities, the F-35C which has larger wings with foldable tips and improved low-speed control for landing on aircraft carriers, and the signature F-35B with short takeoff and vertical landing capability.

None of that matters, though, if it’s too heavy to fly the way it needs to, said F-35 engineering project office Senior Manager Mark Counts at June's AIAA Aviation Forum. Filling the jet so full created weight problems, restricting flight distance, speed and agility beyond what was acceptable, especially in the case of the F-35B. It also put too much stress on certain joints and rivets.

Lockheed Martin spent the two probationary years making over 600 changes to optimize size, weight and power, resulting in the shedding of 2,600 lb and a 700-lb thrust increase, according to Counts. That got the JSF back on track and, ultimately, off probation, if not the hot seat. Since then, Lockheed Martin and its myriad partners have been focused on keeping weight and costs down and quality up, and working back toward that promise of a flying do-it-all sensor laboratory.

Integral to that promise are the purported 9.1 million lines of code running under the surface of the F-35. Many of those direct the data fusion engine that connects all the powerful sensors the F-35 carries and combines everything into information pilots can use to get that crucial leg up on enemy combatants.

One of those sensors is the AN/AAQ-37 distributed-aperture system (DAS) produced by Northrop Grumman. It uses six electro-optical sensors that operate in the mid-wave infrared spectrum to provide a 360-degree view around the plane in an attempt to maximize situational awareness. It aids in missile and launch point detection and its cameras are integral to the helmet-mounted display system's (HMDS) ability to let the pilot see through the plane.

That contract only extends through 2023, though. Northrop did not compete to keep producing the system, which Dixon described as “not being a good business case” for the company. Raytheon won the contract beginning with Lot-15 F-35 DASs, which Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works head and former F-35 lead Jeff Babione said will have five times the resolution of the current DAS at a lower cost.

The DAS may also be the seed of a future technology Babione envisions for the F-35: the ability for the pilot to look wherever he or she wants and see a highly augmented version of what surrounds the fighter regardless of the canopy. He described that possibility at AIAA as a technology being worked on further afield than confirmed changes like AGCAS and the DAS switch.

The root of that may already be there, though. The DAS surrounds the F-35 with real-time cameras and, in the words of Lockheed Martin VP of F-35 Engineering and Technology Santi Bulnes, “the current HMD augments what the pilot sees with tactical symbology today no matter where he looks.”

It even works with two forward-facing cameras so that “with a press of a button, an IR image can also be displayed on the HMD which enables ‘looking through aircraft structure’ or augmented night vision,” according to Bulnes.

That technology is notably used to visually erase a portion of the front canopy bow that would otherwise block the pilot’s line of sight. Lemons said that “case of augmenting reality a bit to remove a piece of structure from the aircraft” could serve as a nascent version of what Babione discussed, which might expand on that with multi-spectrum vision.

It's no sure thing, though. Lockheed would not confirm that technology as the future of the jet, and, in the words of the company's mission systems expert for the F-35, Greg Lemons, "You don't want to adopt something just because it sounds good. You want to be smart about the parts you bring in, and the parts that you decide aren't really going to help us.”

The F-35 currently costs between $94 million (F-35A) and $122 million (F-35B) for low-rate initial production run 10, though sustainment cost projections are as big a concern as production costs for a program that is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over its 55-year lifespan. The unit prices are expected to continue to drop as the fighter enters full-rate production this year, and soon the overall price per jet is expected to drop below $100 million.

At the same time, Lockheed is shifting its focus from upfront development toward its continuous capability development and delivery (C2D2) strategy, which focuses on agile upgrades. That’s where things such as constant small software updates, additions when they’re ready such as AGCAS, and long-term planning for things like full augmented vision are all balanced to keep evolution and adaptation a constant.


This story is part of our expansive F-35 coverage. You can also learn about the fighter's helmet-mounted display system, data fusion and information sharingautomatic ground-collision avoidance and its active electronically scanned array radar

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  • Raptor1

    I’ll bet if they keep adding new wonder-tech to this already over-teched aircraft, they can “successfully” announce that they’ve surpassed the national debt, and can then make the case that “what does it matter what we spend?”
    Such is the way of things – First it was announced not to worry about the $1T lifetime costs, that’s a figure that projects out so many years, it’s actually a bargain. Now that the projection has increased 50% in just a year, no more talking about it. Typical.
    As for the $90 Mil a piece, it’s really quite simple – It’s dependent on a ridiculous buy of 3,000 aircraft; As those numbers drop, and they will, it’s likely future F-35 costs will grow exponentially – The $400Mil+ we’ve paid so far for each piece of our quasi-usable F-35 fleet shows just what kind of work program this has become, and always has been
    As we’ll see here in a few years, the F-35s greatest contribution is as a lab experiment for the technology we’ve grossly over-paid for trying to wrap it into a manned fighter, disguised as an ISR platform, masquerading as a VSTOL- As new systems come online using new versions of its tech, why settle for an aircraft whose operational costs are absurd when a drone can be outfitted with the tech and provide greater range, loiter time, and weapons options… And still provide all the capabilities the F/R/A/B – 35 program thinks this thing is so suitable for. Since it admittedly is not a fighter, and its main argument is that dog fighting is dead, there’s not even a need to spend billions building a drone that can do it either -so the very idea that all of its actually useful tech is wrapped in a fighter is laughable by fanboys’ own metrics.
    The AF should end up buying about 1,000 of them… That’s a 5:1 ratio of F-35s to F-22s – That’s enough F-35s to keep its big brother plenty busy protecting its ass. 🙂

    • bob

      I’ve been following this stuff for a while now. And feel the us military has been asleep at the wheel for 15 yrs and wasting tons of money on stupid stuff. However as former usmc I feel the usmc is really getting their act together with their f-35b and mv-22’s, (distributed force, austere operations, etc). I have little faith in the other services, (but I’m pretty bias to usmc obviously). I feel things have improved over the last year, and this new game changing approach has thrown a monkey wrench into our adversaries plans. Just because they are unsure about our real capabilities, this has been enough to hold off WW3 and extinction. It’s my opinion if strong leadership had not come in, ww3 would have happened last year, (we are severely out manned and out gunned). Think about it Germany has 186 tanks, (most don’t work). Somebody else has something like 30k tanks all lined up and ready to roll in. With advanced missile defence system protecting them, pretty much anything we have flying would be suicide, ( except hopefully the f-35, fingers crossed). As soon as they see us stumble, (upcoming election and impeachment). I can guarantee they will be rolling. With us busy, somebody else really wants Japan, Taiwan, and phillipines really bad, (mostly as payback for past aggressions, and oil in south china sea). Of course they were planning all this anyway, but with us busy in europe the plan will be moved up. It will all end up going nuclear, and will be an extinction event, (nuclear winter for 10,000 yrs). It’s a sequence of events that will occur that will start in a couple weeks, and culminate next summer. If we could have moved a little faster we could have changed the course. I really hope this doesn’t happen, but have a bad feeling, this is gonna happen.

      • Another_Bob

        By “strong leadership,” could you possibly be referring to Donald Trump? If so, anybody who actually believes that a man as ignorant and corrupt as him is somehow saving this country from a supposed Armageddon has pretty much discredited themselves completely. I really can’t understand how otherwise intelligent people can be such suckers considering Trump’s blatant unfitness. It’s a sign of real weakness for this country that so many Americans have apparently lost any capacity for critical thinking or good judgment. And the doomsday fear-mongering and end-of-days rhetoric is a weird symptom of the political disease that seems to have infected much of the conservative end of our political spectrum. The right wingers are going nuts.

      • oscar saenz

        I’m from the future and I’m here to certify that everything you typed up is bullshit. You don’t know your head from your ass and should seek psychiatric help immediately. Also, if Donald Trump is the best your race has, then you guys are screwed…